Outside the Box: Hollywood writers’ strike is about more than money. It’s also about having power over AI.

United States

The strike by film and television writers that began on May 2 is relevant to our lives for far more than just the fate of our favorite shows.  It is an important test of whether — and how — workers can get fairly paid as artificial intelligence and other technology alters their jobs.

More than 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America felt compelled to go on strike because the jobs that they and their predecessors fought to make into solid middle-class careers with the potential for significantly higher pay have been undermined by streaming technologies. They now they fear AI could be used to reduce their compensation further.  Because writers are one of the first groups of workers to bargain over AI, the results may have a big impact on the rest of us.

Median weekly pay for screenwriters has, adjusting for inflation, declined by 14% over the past 5 years and for writer-producers by 23% over the past decade, even as entertainment firms have been quite profitable, according to the Writers Guild.  Streaming has allowed writers to reach greater audiences, but it has also altered the structure that enabled them to earn a decent living and make more money when shows found additional audiences.  Writers also worry that AI will be used to shift their jobs towards low-paid editing of computer-generated material. 

Technological change makes workers more productive and thus could (and should) increase worker compensation.  Indeed, writers have used strikes and collective bargaining to successfully manage numerous transitions in their industry.  But it doesn’t always work out this way, especially for workers who are not part of a union.

New technologies can eliminate some jobs, yet much of the time they more subtly change jobs and shift the balance of power towards owners and away from workers.  As a result, corporations can often use technology’s gains to boost executive compensation and stock prices, rather than worker pay, and can even use the disruption to reduce worker compensation or make work worse in other ways.

In the early days of Hollywood, labor relations were “feudal,” binding workers to studios, but in the 1930s writers started organizing a union and after great struggle eventually signed collective bargaining agreements with movie studios that required minimum compensation and benefits as well as screen credit and payment of residual payments when work is reused. 

Through the decades writers have fought to maintain this basic payment structure of minimums, credit, and residuals.  As new technologies emerged, such as growth of over-the-air television, video cassettes, DVDs and cable, they have used strikes, organizing, and collective bargaining to continue improving standards.

The current strike tests whether the Writers Guild can make a deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) — which is negotiating the contract on behalf of Hollywood studios, streamers, and production companies — that updates this model to deal with how, for example, streaming (and the lack of reliable public information about streaming viewership) changes the nature of “residuals.” 

Writers also want a say in how artificial intelligence will be used to write shows in the future and how that will affect writing jobs and credits. Many other workers share similar concerns.  Indeed, members of the Screen Actors Guild appear likely to strike in part over how AI will be used and the Directors Guild recently reached a tentative agreement to avert a potential work-stoppage that includes some protections about the use of AI. 

While the exact outcome of the writers’ strike remains in the balance, the lesson for all workers and policymakers is that unions and collective bargaining are a good way to ensure that workers benefit from technological change. When workers have sufficient power to bargain with their employers, they often can come to an agreement that works for all parties.

Workers around the U.S. increasingly understand this lesson and support unions at near-record levels, yet, numerous flaws in U.S. law give corporations too many ways to bust unions.  Which is why Congress should pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act to ensure workers have the power and protections necessary to organize.

Read: AI gives big business the power to bust labor unions

U.S. policymakers should also take additional steps to help workers better use collective bargaining as technology increasingly disrupts industries.  A key move would be to create mechanisms for extending existing union contracts to similarly placed workers in new parts of industries. 

This would mean, for example, that when corporations create “new” ventures based on an emerging technology to do work that is similar to what is already covered by a collective bargaining agreement, the new work would be automatically covered by the existing collective bargaining agreement.  Prevailing union standards would thus be less vulnerable to being undermined by technological change and workers would also have a stronger floor from which to bargain for improvements. 

The bottom line is that writers are trying to ensure they can still have good jobs in the modern economy and are showing the path forward for the rest of us.

David Madland is the author of “Re-Union: How Bold Labor Reforms Can Repair, Revitalize, and Reunite the United States”  (Cornell University Press, 2021) and is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Also read:AI is going to change the way entertainment is made. Will it be for better or worse

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